Recently I had a debate with some friends about whether or not our moods, and in turn our wellbeing, can be influenced by those around us – in particular the friends we choose to spend time with. You could say that friends are supposed to elevate us to full happy status, and yet that just isn’t always the case.
We care a lot about what our friends think and if they are quick to shun an idea, it can lead us to do the same too. This highlights the importance of making friends with people who elevate you rather than associating with those who might hold you back, bring you down or unconsciously wound you.
The reason friends can affect us so much is because during an interaction with our BFFs we will instinctively mirror their behaviour, body language and even facial expressions as a way to bond and display unity. We also often mirror their emotions as well as their behaviours, which ultimately, we internalise and take away with us. It is a phenomenon called ‘social contagion’, so named because, like a virus, emotions literally spread from one person to another. This makes it vital to our psychological wellbeing to try to ‘catch’ uplifting emotions rather than get infected with negative ones.
If you are still not convinced, just picture your closest gal pals. Is there one in particular who regularly has news of a self-constructed dilemma or seemingly unjust conflict? And, despite her unhappiness, can you think of a time when she genuinely made an effort to change her circumstances or when she showed gratitude for all the good things in her life? If the answer is ‘yes’ to the first question and ‘no’ to the second, you may need to stock up on garlic, get a vial of holy water and dial 0800-VAN-HELSING because you have undoubtedly fallen prey to an energy vampire, or Evie. Evie is a friend in permanent crisis, a creature who (in my best David Attenborough voice) will gently coil around her prey before sinking her fangs into her victim’s delicate skin, slowly draining its life energy. She won’t take everything, just enough to leave her victim feeling lethargic, light-headed and looking for ways to solve her unresolvable issues.
The only way to avoid being feasted on is distance, both physical and emotional. This means minimising face-to-face contact, not indulging her needy texts and possibly even unfollowing her on social media. It might seem harsh, but Evie dines on turmoil and no matter how much you try to help, the chances are you won’t get through. Worse still, by being complicit in her misery addiction you’ll be unwittingly reinforcing her cycle of negative behaviour.
It is so easy to forget that unlike our family, we choose our friends, which means we can choose to break friendships as easily as we make them. This might seem controversial or even cold-hearted, yet if there are people in your life who don’t make you happy then, just like Gwynnie and Chris, you owe it to yourself to ‘consciously uncouple’ and move on.
It can prove difficult as by the time you get into your forties and beyond, many of your friends may be lifelong acquaintances, so it can be hard to imagine an escape from such history. If you’re in this position, it’s important to remember that a shared past does not have to dictate a shared future.
The good news is that happiness is just as contagious as negativity, so catch a dose and also make an effort to spread as much as you can. Try to replace ‘energy sappers’ with ‘energy zappers’ and join clubs and classes that will attract like-minded people interested in looking forward rather than backwards. If you already have great friends who lift you up, then see them more often or change up the things you do together.